Sagoli Swakweku - Greetings! America officially celebrated Native American Heritage Day, November 28, 2014 thanks to President Barack Obama's issued proclamation. The President's message on Native American Heritage Day is an important reminder to all Americans that we should take a moment to reflect upon Native American contributions in the formation of the United States.
Just last week Suzan Harjo, former head of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) and Native American activist was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her lifetime of work. She's well-deserving and as the President laid the medal around Suzan's neck I felt her honor and recognition. I know that Suzan would agree when I say that her medal is a reflection of the native plight, the many challenges along the way and a positive reinforcement for the fight that still needs to be fought. President Obama agreed. When it came time to summarize the accomplishments of the Suzan, he said, "Because of Suzan, more young Native Americans are growing up with pride in their heritage and with faith in their future. And she's taught all of us that Native values make Americans stronger."
People from all walks of life, native and non-native alike, were recognized on Native American Heritage Day in different ways. As Chairman of the National Indian Gaming Association, and a proud citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, I greatly appreciate the efforts made today to better educate the general public on the heritage of tribes and their communities. More importantly, I am profoundly grateful for the generations of dedicated tribal leaders who fought to maintain, strengthen and in some cases, rebuild the way of life that was constantly threatened throughout the so-called assimilation process. These brave men and women leaders, representing all of our sovereign governments, along with the perseverance of native people throughout their communities, are responsible for keeping our heritage alive and passing it down to each successive generation despite the tremendous challenges and obstacles put before them.
The Late Billy Frank, Jr. is one of those leaders. A dynamic modern day warrior that was a father figure to me and so many others. He was such an amazing man whose kindness and patience weren't overshadowed by his determination. If it wasn't for his long record of advocacy and the powerful stance he took, Indian Country wouldn't be where it is today. Billy, a Nisqually tribal member was remembered on Native American Heritage Day for his grassroots campaigns in Washington State. It is the work of these kinds of warriors that we celebrate not only this past weekend and the month of November, but throughout the years.
In your homes and in mine, we enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday weekend and Native American Heritage Day. From watching my family grow, to witnessing Indian Country grow, to seeing a new generation of tribal leaders come to Washington, we have had many great days of thanksgiving.
Our Indian gaming industry has provided thousands of permanent jobs to our tribal nations and to our respective neighbors. Sustainable economies have been built and real infrastructure like affordable housing, roads, emergency response, schools and hospitals are now open and in full operation. Scholarships and grants are helping people achieve their academic goals. For this, we are all thankful.
Those days of thanksgiving will continue to happen. Celebrate now our identity, our heritage, our culture, our language and our communities. We are strong, united and ready to take on the challenges ahead. I hope you all enjoyed the time of thanksgiving with your families and relations and always remember the true accounts of our history must be made in our hands.
I was raised in a different world that looked at Thanksgiving as a reflection of struggle. A day of remembering a historic tragedy in spite of the kind and generous nature of Native American nations. As our friend Kevin Gover of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) said, "Surely as Americans we have much to be thankful for. But Thanksgiving will mean much more if people take the time to recognize the real story of our shared history. "I believe we have made great strides in educating America about what we can truly be thankful for and why we celebrate Native American Heritage Day.
Through our work with the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), President Obama and most importantly the native nations that make up this beautiful country, we have been able to provide an education that not only clarifies history but helps America understand what tribal governments are and our statues as sovereign governments. Through the month of celebration that culminated on Native American Heritage Day we are able to clarify history and help communities understand who we are as governments; governments who engaged in politics, economic development and most importantly community and cultural interaction and exchange long before European contact and the establishment of the United States of America.
Ernie Stevens, Jr.
National Indian Gaming Association